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Sport as a window on society

2008 May 14
by Skip Sauer

The Uefa Cup Final will be played today, between Glasgow Rangers and Zenit St. Petersburg, of Russia. The occasion reminds me of Frankin Foer’s book, How Soccer Explains the World.

I will root for Rangers, who could complete a remarkable season by winning three trophies in the next eleven days, with this year’s CIS Cup already in the bag. But Rangers are emblematic of sectarian violence, as discussed by Foer, and I won’t be singing along with chants against the pope tonight.

Zenit are favorites to win their first European trophy. A Zenit victory would symbolize the rise of the Russian economy, and the rise of Russian football as well. Zenit, as well as Russian football, are emerging from relative obscurity. How far can they – and the economy itself – go? There are some eye-opening facts about Zenit in this story from the BBC, including the fact that Zenit are owned by Gazprom, now the fourth largest company in the world. Gazprom has been pouring money into Zenit – making Zenit the Russian version of Chelsea, who are also lavishly funded by Russian oil wealth.

But the most amazing, and disturbing thing in the article is the following discussion about race. Zenit is an all-white team, by design according to their coach Dick Advocaat:

Unfortunately the club also have a hard core of racists among their supporters. Zenit are the only club in Russia never to have signed a black player, and their fans were accused of racist taunts during the Uefa Cup win over Marseille earlier this season.

Marseille defender Ronald Zubar said: “They threw a banana at us and made monkey sounds.”

Manager Dick Advocaat has even admitted that the fans’ attitude has affected his transfer policy.

“The problem is our fans,” he says. “I would be happy to sign anyone but the fans don’t like black players.

“I don’t understand how they could pay so much attention to skin colour. For me, there’s no difference between white, black or red.

“But the fans are the most important thing Zenit have. That’s why, in future, I have to ask them outright how they’ll react if we sign a dark-skinned player.

“If the fans don’t agree with me, I won’t do it. I won’t buy a player who won’t be accepted by the fans.”

Customer discrimination is a concept that dates back to Gary Becker. The fans’ behavior in this case is awful, but not without precedent in Europe (hence the kick racism out of football campaign). What is quite remarkable though, is the explicit policy statement of customer discrimination by Zenit’s manager. I’ve not come across anything quite like it.

Ultimately, virulent discrimination is a limiting factor for any football club, indeed any economy. Perhaps Dick Advocaat should be channeling Bear Bryant, who learned that lesson long ago. Bryant integrated the Alabama football team after getting whipped on the field by black players from Southern Cal. Although some argue that he was late to the party, better late than never.

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